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Q&A with UK sport psychologist Marc Cormier: How student-athletes handle high-pressure situations

a hand holding a basketball

LEXINGTON, Ky. (March 10, 2023) — It’s basketball fans’ favorite time of year — March Madness. Whether it is the love of basketball, or the thrill of competition, every fan is rooting on a favorite team.

What does it take to win it all? Marc Cormier, director of the Sport and Exercise Psychology graduate program housed in the University of Kentucky College of Education Department of Kinesiology and Health Promotion, and director of Counseling and Sport Psychology Services in UK Athletics, recently explained to UKNow how student-athletes handle high-pressure situations.

UKNow: What exactly does a sport psychology professional study?

Cormier: Sport psychology is an umbrella term. Under this umbrella, we have two main areas, mental health and mental fitness, and each have their own sub-fields. Basically, sport psychology professionals (across the spectrum) study the relationship between psychological/mental factors and optimizing human performance. These can include focus, emotional regulation, anxiety, team cohesion, motivation, managing expectations and even the psychological aspects of injury and rehabilitation. Some professionals are certified to work in mental fitness whereas others are qualified and licensed to work in mental health. A small number of professionals are trained and credentialed to work in both.

Elite athletes have strength and conditioning coaches to train the body and athletic trainers to rehabilitate the body and keep it healthy. Sport psychology professionals are another piece of the puzzle as we aim to do each of these for the brain. We may help an athlete through difficulties known as a “slump” or help them develop the skills to prevent slumps from ever happening. By making athletes aware of the importance of mental factors, we can hopefully help them understand that they have control over the way they think, and therefore, how they perform.

UKNow: The NCAA Tournament represents the culmination of a team’s season and is watched by millions of fans. Can you talk about the pressures that student-athletes face associated with playing in this tournament?

Cormier: Without a doubt, student-athletes will face a variety of pressures in this tournament that likely aren’t present throughout the rest of the season. From November through February, if a team under-performs, they regroup, watch film, practice and adjust for the next game. What makes this format so unique are the high stakes. It’s win or go home. There are no do-overs. So, in addition to being physically ready, student-athletes need to be psychologically prepared for this format.

Mental skills are like any other skill. To some, they come more easily or naturally. To others, it can be more of a challenge or a process. Ultimately, if we think of holistic performance as pie, a big piece of the whole, particularly at the Division 1 level, will always be physical skill and technical abilities. The rest of the pie is then divided into the other major contributors to performance (e.g., sleep, nutrition, sport IQ, recovery, physical and emotional health and, of course, mental fitness). The challenge for sport psychology professionals is to determine, for each student-athlete/team in the NCAA tournament: (a) how much of the pie is made up of mental factors and (b) what specific mental skill(s) does an athlete/team need to work on most, in various situations (e.g., free throws, timeouts, defense, final four, etc.). Some student-athletes need to put in extra reps in building confidence, while others need to work on focus and concentration when ESPN cameras are on. Ultimately, the formula looks different for every person and that, in all honesty, is the most challenging and enjoyable part of my job.

It's also important to note that we don’t always look at things from a deficiency perspective. In other words, we’re not always concerned with “what’s missing.” Often, part of the process is helping athletes/teams to identify things they do well. A good practitioner will focus on helping performers identify strengths and assets just as frequently as weaknesses, while working to build both.

UKNow: Building off this, help us understand what usually goes through a student-athlete’s head in high-pressure situations?

Cormier: Stress and anxiety are very common in high-pressure situations and what we see most often. They can have a real impact on a person’s performance. Physical symptoms such as muscle tension, sweating, increased heart rate and trembling/shaking may be the difference between a basket and a missed shot. But there are many instances where an athlete looks fine but is experiencing what is called cognitive anxiety (e.g., racing/clouded thoughts, fear of failure, doubt in abilities, poor decision making, etc.). These can be just as detrimental to performance and require different skills to manage.

Every athlete will respond differently to a high-pressure situation. In the end, it all depends on how an athlete appraises the situation. Athlete A may appraise an Elite Eight game as “high pressure” because of the high stakes, crowd noise and/or national broadcast. Athlete B, on the other hand, appraises it as an opportunity to showcase their abilities. So, first we must understand the individual athlete and identify what situations lead them to thrive and what are potential areas of growth.

Things like fear of failure, negative self-talk (e.g., don’t miss this shot, don’t lose it for the team) and general self-doubt. Basically, in high-pressure situations, everything is magnified which can lead athletes to fear mistakes, dwell on mistakes or avoid complex/risky plays altogether.

UKNow: What impact does a team’s regular season performance (i.e., win/loss record) have on a NCAA tournament mindset?

Cormier: Logically, as fans, we often view these as separate entities (e.g., season vs. post-season), because they are. Once you’re in the tournament, it’s a whole new season.

In reality, it’s common for teams to view the NCAA tournament as a continuation of their season and they can get caught up in their regular season performance (for good or bad). Ultimately, a lot can rest on a team’s momentum. In other words, the way a team finishes a season is often more important than the way a team begins one. It's often better to go through struggles within the heart of a season because of the time remaining to adjust. With that in mind, it makes sense to view any team as “more than their record.” In other words, a win/loss record is not always an accurate representation of what a team can do on day one of the tournament. We have to consider the way they’ve been playing most recently.

With that in mind, there are critical things for every team to understand as they begin the NCAA tournament. First, every team in this tournament deserves to be in this tournament. There are no “easy games” and every team needs to be respected as a top Division 1 basketball team. Second, every team has a 0-0 record on day one of the tournament. A team’s season record matters, sort of, and only in terms of their tournament ranking. After that, everyone enters on a level playing field. Finally, focus on the task at hand, not the previous game or the next game. This game. The trick here is not to forget about the regular season, but to appreciate and acknowledge where you’ve come from. Acknowledge the work you’ve done to reach this level and intentionally on who you’re currently playing. 

UKNow: What is the key to success when trying to balance mental and physical performance?

Cormier: To me, the biggest key is developing an appreciation for all aspects of performance. From an outside perspective, performance looks like an iceberg. What the fans see is just the tip of the iceberg, floating above the surface. The big shot or the flawless play are products of the work that must be done. The work that matters, day in and day out. And it’s not flashy or celebrated.

Over 85% of an iceberg is beneath the surface and people rarely see or think about what happens when student-athletes are off the screen. We don’t often realize how much is invested to be able to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. The early morning/extra workouts, the grind, sacrifice, team bonding and skill development. At this level, it takes more than just talent or physical skill. It involves an in-depth awareness of how all things fit together for each athlete. As I’ve mentioned before, this process looks different for each student-athlete and team. Ultimately, the ones who continuously perform well are those who understand and appreciate each factor related to their performance … mental, physical or otherwise.

We always consider the environment when optimizing performance. Obviously, the environment is a very broad term since it can involve the physical environment (e.g., stadium, crowd noise, Final Four setting) or socio-emotional environment (e.g., culture, team cohesion, coaching). A very basic tool or technique in sport psychology is remembering to “control the controllables.” We need to remember that some things, such as the environment, cannot be changed. Therefore, student-athletes must work to control how they respond to uncontrollable events or factors, rather than dwelling on the fact that the environment is not desirable for enhancing their performance. This can be difficult. In essence, we’re asking student-athletes to learn to accept an uncontrollable (competing in a win-or-go-home format) while focusing on the aspects of their performance that they can control (e.g., their ability to focus, helping teammates, remaining mindful, their work ethic, etc.).

UKNow: Are there any mental stress coping skills you tell athletes to use that an everyday person could also value from?

Cormier: A lot of what we do in sport is transferable to everyday life because much of what we teach athletes are, in fact, life skills. One major thing I try to do is help athletes focus on the process, not the outcome. It can be counterproductive to be too outcome oriented because the outcome can be out of our control. Instead, by focusing on the process (i.e., what YOU can do to achieve a desired outcome), we become agents of success. Imagine a person whose goal is to get into a top law school. Wanting the outcome can help motivate this person, but ultimately, law students are chosen from a “best available” approach — meaning, whether or not a person gets in may depend on who else applies that year. But by focusing on the process — controllable things you can do to improve your chances (i.e., completing internships, working hard, submitting a strong assignment) you work harder and simultaneously increase your chances of meeting your outcome by becoming a more desirable candidate. Likewise, in sports, we’re helping an athlete focus on executing the small things (e.g., foot speed, positioning, defensive awareness), to increase baskets and increase the likelihood of winning a game. At the end of the day, I will never try and convince a student-athlete that winning doesn’t matter. Of course, it does. But we can be successful even if we don’t outscore an opponent. This mindset motivates us to keep working, regardless of the outcome.

I also use mindfulness a lot in my work with athletes, as I mentioned above. There are so many benefits, both on and off the court, to being present. Being in the moment. This means not dwelling on mistakes or thinking too far into the future, but focusing on what you’re doing right now.

UKNow: What opportunities are available to pursue a career in sport psychology at the University of Kentucky?

Cormier: Those interested in a career in sport psychology can apply to the graduate program in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Promotion, which is housed in the College of Education. This is a two-year program and allows students the choice of pursuing an applied or research track. Applied students will complete a 300-hour internship while Research students will complete an original thesis project.

Students in both tracks will complete coursework in sport and exercise psychology, group dynamics, counseling techniques, leadership, diversity and social justice and psychology of injury. More information can be found on our website

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

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